I clowns, we’ve been told, is “minor Fellini.” Perhaps; however, it is a minor masterpiece. Made for Italian television, with additional support from France and West Germany, Federico Fellini’s phantasmagoric celebration of circus clowns provides, also, a valedictory for them. At the last, the death of a clown signals the loss of childhood, which signals the “last end” for which life prepares all of us “clowns.”
A boy wakes up in the wee hours at noise outside his bedroom window in Rimini; the big tent is being raised, for the circus has rolled into town. A haunting camera adopting young Fellini’s point of view enters the dark, sheltered domain of the tent. Someone smiles at the boy—at us, too, for we’ve entered the tent along with young Fellini. Seamlessly, this hours-early event is transformed into that evening’s performance. A midget-clown annoys a big clown, who plants an ax in his noggin: the circus as waking nightmare, the little clown an encapsulation of Anychild’s vulnerability, fears. (We’re reminded of childlike Gelsomina, strongman Zampanò’s “clown”-companion in Fellini’s La strada, 1954.) Flash to the present: dressed in a gray suit punctuated by a mortally red tie, the adult Fellini plans a documentary to answer this question: What has happened to the great clowns? The pseudo-documentary that follows introduces us to the different historic types of clowns and to actual reminiscing clowns. It dramatizes Fellini’s—and our—denial of childhood through serious inquiry, research, documentation. Yet it draws us close to what we have lost.
A clown, vanished, is presumably dead. His companion-clown trumpets the wistful tune that the other clown used to play, to summon him. Dressed in black, the missing clown appears to take the white-dressed clown with him: the end that either was born for.
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